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Afghanistan: UK troops to pull out of Sangin

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 July 2010

As Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox confirms that UK troops will be redeployed from Sangin, Helmand, a leading military specialist tells Channel 4 News the problem has been the scale of the British task.

British soldiers in Sangin, Afghanistan (Getty)

UK soldiers will be withdrawn from the area, currently home to 40 Commando Royal Marines, later this year.

The UK will concentrate its effort on the central part of Helmand province instead, in what he said would provide "more manpower and greater focus" on that area.

Fox also said 300 extra British troops from a reserve battalion kept on stand-by in Cyprus would be deployed on a temporary basis until the switchover was complete - likely to be in October.

Exclusive: British Commander Colonel Richard Westley on his appeal for more troops in Helmand in 2005.
"I came up with a figure that was just under a brigade, so I was wrong too. But I figured it was just under a brigade or a brigade thereabouts (about 6,500). Which is shy of what we have there now.

"I was aware there was little appetite for deploying anything of that size at that stage. Bear in mind we didn't have anything like the equipment or even the pre-training that we have now, and of course, there was that issue of Iraq going on at the time. So people were quite stretched.

"But, I sensed very, very quickly that my recommendation of force mass was going to be more than the bank would bear back home.

"When I look at what we're trying to do now on the ground, and still quite thinly spread in the areas we want to have influence, yes I was wrong in my estimate - I'm happy to stand up and say that - but my estimate was considerably more than the appetite existed for back in the UK."

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"The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand between three brigade-sized forces, with the US in the north and the south, and the UK-led Task Force Helmand, alongside our outstanding Danish and Estonian allies, in the central population belt," Dr Fox told the Commons.

Addressing the Commons, Fox defended earlier comments that the decision to replace UK forces in the area was a defeat. Fox said that progress had been made in Afghanistan and that pulling out of the area meant a "realistic redistribution" of forces. Helmand is to be divided into three taskforces - two US, one UK - later this year.

'The real problem is the scale of the task'
The UK’s 10,000 force level is greatly more focused than before, Michael Codner, director of military sciences RUSI, told Channel 4 News.

Indications have been that the UK have been fairly successful in Sangin in taking stabilisation forward progressively since the refocusing. Of course troops to population is a fundamental factor in progress in counter-insurgency so the more the better if that is the result of the US takeover but it would be wrong to characterise this change as the result of British failure.

The point of principle is that the UK contribution to Afghanistan – a US initiated and led campaign regardless of the command structure (Nato etc) - has been very considerable as a junior partner in relation to the nation’s comparative size, wealth and other commitments (Iraq until recently).

The problem has been the scale of the task assigned to the UK until recently and much of the problem has been the UK military’s tendency to offer "tell us what to do, sir, and by God we’ll do it" rather than to accept a reasonable task on the basis of hard negotiation. And the reason has been the perceived need to sustain the 'special relationship' and the benefits to UK security that the implied influence of the US will deliver by being as helpful as possible rather than as reasonable.

Almost 90 UK troops have died in Sangin since operations began in the country since 2001. The area is a major centre of Afghanistan's opium-growing industry.

In June the 300th soldier to die in Afghanistan was confirmed as a Royal Marine of 40 Commando who had been serving in Sangin. Around a of third lives lost have been in Sangin, a remote district in Helmand province.

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Britain's 8,000 forces in Helmand are now greatly outnumbered by the 20,000 US Marines sent there under President Barack Obama's surge strategy.

The news came as the MoD announced the name of a soldier killed in Afghanistan on Monday. Trooper James Leverett, 20, of the Royal Dragoon Guards, was killed by a roadside bomb in the south of the country.

His comrades today described him as a "model soldier" who had made his mark during his 18 months in the regiment.

312 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001. To view the list in full click here for an interactive gallery.

'Taliban will present Sangin pullout as defeat'
Any chink in the armour of our political commitment will be ruthlessly exploited by the Taliban and communicated in unmistakable terms to their financial backers in Pakistan and the Gulf - and to the Afghan people, writes Col Richard Kemp.

The Taliban's sophisticated media machine - the envy of ISAF and Whitehall - swung into action immediately the story was leaked in Britain yesterday. They will be presenting our redeployment from Sangin to central Helmand as a defeat.

It is far from that. With the US surge swelling to 20,000 troops in Helmand, it makes complete sense to consolidate British troops together in a continuous geographical zone of operations.

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